Singapore's great civil servants

Business Times 12 Dec 07;

CIVIL servants, particularly in the top echelons, while appearing to orbit around the ministers they serve, actually determine the trajectory for national policy. Their bosses, meanwhile, blissfully unaware, take all the credit. That is the familiar parody of government, so delightfully played out in the Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister TV series.

But what is the actual relationship between political leaders and their mandarins? And what should it ideally be? Obviously, there are as many answers to the first question as there are systems of government; and, some would argue, as there are levels of governance.

In truth, the public never fully knows, and there's usually an Official Secrets Act or its equivalent to keep it that way. So we depend on the occasional political biographies, interviews with the more outspoken government officials and comments by recently retired civil service chiefs to provide an insider's view of what really happens in the corridors of power.

Such insights can be both fascinating and eye-opening, as a recent talk by the redoubtable Ngiam Tong Dow illustrates.

Mr Ngiam, a former permanent secretary with the Finance Ministry, served with and for some of the sharpest minds in the various ministries over a career that spanned almost half a century. His candid recollections at the NUS Economics Alumni annual dinner last week were entertaining. But the best anecdotes are those that make the listeners think even as they laugh; and there was plenty of food for thought.

Policymakers might want to debate some of his strongly held opinions, such as his belief that the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) is focusing too heavily on the exchange rate as an instrument of monetary policy, and not enough on the interest rate. Mr Ngiam is also adamant that the most pressing issue facing Singapore - socially, economically and politically - is population. While there is no doubt that policymakers have given serious thought to population initiatives, most recently the moves to ease entry of overseas workers, a whole-hearted and holistic re-examination of the issue might not be a bad idea at all.

And there is no gainsaying a recurring theme of his speech, namely, the danger of over-dependence on models and statistics when setting major policy. Cost-benefit analysis may have served well in the Great MRT debate of the 1970s, but taking this mechanistic approach in the Great Marriage debate of the 1980s harmed more than it helped, as he points out. Abstract numbers need to be corroborated with the situation on the ground; a point seemingly obvious but too often overlooked under pressure.

But importantly, what comes through clearly is that - in contrast to Yes Minister - this country's political leaders and civil servants are capable and often brilliant, and they work together for the common good. And that is perhaps the biggest, and most comforting, insight of all.

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